Monday, September 7, 2009

Can we really believe in Hell?

Hell is such a grim topic that an icebreaker is called for. So let’s loosen up a little before we do a swan dive into the lake of eternal fire.

What is the difference between heaven and hell?

In heaven, the lovers are Italian, the cooks are French, the mechanics are German, the police are English, the administrators are Swiss. In hell, the lovers are Swiss, the cooks are English, the mechanics are French, the police are German, and the administrators are Italian.

Because of the resurrection of Jesus, Christians know that death is not the end of their existence. At some point, God will bring creation to its final fulfillment and, just as Christ was raised from the dead, human beings will be resurrected into eternity. Heaven is used to describe eternal life in the actual presence of God, while hell is used to describe eternal life apart from God’s presence. Hell was described by Jesus as the final destiny of Satan and his cohort after the final triumph of Christ over evil, as well as the place where unsaved souls spend an eternal sentence of punishment for their sin.

By asking, “Can we really believe in hell?” I mean this: There are numerous explicit references to Hell in the Scriptures. Should we take them seriously? If so, how may we understand them? What does the Bible mean by Hell, anyway? Should we include hell within the umbrella of our Christian faith?

For some persons this is a non-issue. Some persons consider the whole question cut and dried: those who believe in Christ enjoy eternal life with God, and those who don’t believe are adjudged into Hell. But many others of true Christian faith have real difficulty with Hell, myself included.

The problem is this: God is supremely good and supremely powerful. According to First Timothy 2:3-4, God wants everyone to be saved. And God alone is savior. Through Isaiah God said, “. . . for I am God, and there is no other. I . . . am the Lord, and apart from me there is no savior” (Is. 45.22; 43.11).

These things being true, there would appear to be nothing to prevent God from simply exercising his divine power to bring everyone into heaven whether they are already “saved” or not. So the paradox is this: how can we reconcile an eternal hell with God’s power and God’s desire that all be saved?

A usual answer has been to point out that God is totally good, totally pure and totally just. Thus, God’s inherent goodness and purity do not allow unredeemed sinners in his presence, and God’s justice requires that a penalty be paid for sin. However, Jesus’ ministered to the worst sinners of his day, proving that divine goodness does quite well in their presence. Jesus’ teachings reflect that God’s justice is not the tit-for-tat human kind, but a supremely forgiving justice in which we actually do not get what we deserve. Furthermore, an eternal sentence of punishment for a mere seventy to eighty years or so of sin is not justice, it is mindless torture.

We know that God is always at work in the affairs of human beings to bring us into fellowship with God to the greatest degree possible. God’s grace is the only source of salvation.  Grace is a gift. We cannot earn it, nor does God coerce us. We have to accept it. Randy Maddox, past president of the Wesley Theological Society, put it this way: “Without God’s grace, we cannot be saved; unless we respond, we won’t be saved.” Sadly, experience shows that some persons resist this gift of grace and either defy God or deny that God even exists, right up to the day they die. What becomes of them, then?

God does not stop being God simply because we die. If God loves us in this life, God certainly loves us in the next. If God wills to save in this life, he certainly wills it in the next. The hard question is not whether God’s will to save disappears after we die. The hard questions are:

Why would anyone be more “savable” after death than now?

Why would God’s grace be more likely to penetrate our resistance to it after we die than now?

Why would someone be more receptive to God after death than before?

The case for universal salvation presupposes that either human nature or God's nature, or both, are radically different on the other side of human mortality. Persons either become so enlightened in the afterlife that no matter how corrupted by sin they were in life, they nonetheless accept the full grace of God that they had always rejected before – or God is for some reason able to act more powerfully upon us after we depart this life than while we are still living. I can find no biblical basis for either position. In fact, we would have to ask a couple more questions: Why would dying makes us smarter? Why would dying give us better judgement? It can’t. The Bible clearly teaches that death is destructive, not creative.

The Bible treats physical death as a gateway event. The book of Hebrews teaches that we don’t get a “do-over” in life. We get one life, one death, and after that, the judgment, followed by eternity.

Is it possible that dying has a “fixing” effect on our eternal destiny? Here’s an analogy. I once learned how to develop photographic negatives and make prints therefrom. It’s not difficult, although with today's digital cameras it's a vanishing art. Once the negatives have been developed, you make a print by placing a negative frame in a vertical projector. You focus the image on the bottom plate and turn off the lights. Then you place a sheet of photo paper on the bottom plate and expose the paper for a calculated time. Then you immerse the paper a chemical solution that brings the image forth. Finally, you place the paper in another chemical solution known as the “fixer.” The fixer sets the image permanently.

I wonder whether while we live we are “developing,” but death “fixes” us where we are, as far as salvation goes. Even if God’s will to save continues after we die, perhaps it is more difficult, not less, for us to be saved then than now – not because God is less powerful, but because we are less responsive. Freshly poured concrete can be molded, but hardened concrete cannot. It may be that death “hardens” us so that we cannot respond to God’s saving grace.

If God’s salvation is coercive, then this wouldn’t matter. But the Scriptures tell us that God saves from love. Love’s nature is invitation, not compulsion. Jesus called people to follow him, but forced no one. So I am brought to confront Hell as a real possibility. What, then, is Hell?

At one level, we can understand hell as a useful idea. The concept of hell helps us to understand that there is a moral order to creation. The ideas of hell and heaven reinforce human understanding of justice, for if evil is finally destroyed, or at least separated from God’s presence, we can see that what we do in this life has ultimate meaning. Human actions have cosmic significance, and our struggles for justice, mercy and righteousness have divine sanction. Asbury Seminary professor Jerry Walls wrote,
The doctrines of heaven and hell are the supreme articulation of the claim that we can neither evade responsibility for our actions nor the motives behind them. They represent the epitome of the notion that we never serve our ultimate self-interest by doing what is immoral, just as we always serve our ultimate self-interest by our steadfast commitment to do what is right.
When the Bible speaks of hell (or heaven), it uses highly symbolic speech. The theologically conservative Nelson’s Bible Dictionary says,
Because of the symbolic nature of the language, some people question whether hell consists of actual fire. The reality is greater than the symbol. The Bible exhausts human language in describing heaven and hell. The former is more glorious, and the latter more terrible, than language can express. 
So while the Bible does describe hell as a place of fire and burning, we need not take it literally to take it seriously. The New Testament word translated as hell is “Gehenna,” which was a real place outside Jerusalem where pagan Canaanites had once burned their children in sacrifice to their god Molech.

In Jesus’ day Gehenna was the depository of all the filth and garbage of Jerusalem, “including the dead bodies of animals and executed criminals. To dispose of all this, fires burned constantly. Maggots worked in the filth. When the wind blew from that direction over the city, its awfulness was quite evident. At night wild dogs howled and gnashed their teeth as they fought over the garbage.

“Jesus used this awful scene as a symbol of hell. In effect he said, ‘Do you want to know what hell is like? Look at the valley of Gehenna’” (Nelson’s). So hell may be thought of a “cosmic garbage dump,” the exact antithesis of heaven.

I have come to understand hell not as a place, but as a state of ongoing rejection of God. C. S. Lewis described hell as the “skid row” of creation, where souls have become so intoxicated by sin that they no longer even try to break the chains that bind them there. Their dilemma is that they are captive there because they choose to be. They would rather have a delusion of freedom than salvation. Their delusion, wrote Lewis, is that if they glorified God, they would lose their personal identity, but their choice has really ruined their human greatness. Hell, Lewis said, is “the greatest monument to human freedom.”

The apostle Paul wrote of the self-imposition of godlessness in the first chapter of Romans:
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 ... So they are without excuse; 21 for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools; ... they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator (1.18-22 excerpted). 
Hence, Pope John Paul II stood of solid Scriptural ground when he wrote that hell “is not a punishment imposed externally by God but a development of premises already set by people in this life. The very dimension of unhappiness which this obscure condition brings can in a certain way be sensed in the light of some of the terrible experiences we have suffered which, as is commonly said, make life ‘hell.’” Hell “is the ultimate consequence of sin itself, which turns against the person who committed it. It is the state of those who definitively reject” God’s mercy.

The closest analogy to hell I can think of is that of addiction. There was a twenty-nine-year-old woman named Latisha Lewis in the news who confessed that she murdered ninety-year-old Ella Gilbert, whom she did not know, to steal money to buy drugs. Addiction can become so powerful that it overwhelms the faculty of reason and distorts our will beyond self-control. Latisha Lewis’s tragedy is that she became an addict by her own free will. The first hit of narcotics she ever took was her choice.

So I think of hell as a sinner’s crack house, a state of being that is hopelessly beyond self help. It is a perversion of the will so strong that God is not even hoped for, much less sought. Salvation may be technically possible because God’s grace is still offered, but effectively impossible, because it is not even recognized. "The gates of hell," wrote C. S. Lewis, "are locked only on the inside."

This kind of hell is a photographic negative of heaven – isolation rather than fellowship, apathy rather than love, loneliness rather than caring, conflict rather than community, desolation rather than richness. The torment of hell is not chiefly that these things are unbearable (even though they are); the worst torment is that even if hell’s addicts want to escape, they will not or cannot accept God’s grace to do so. Their torment springs from their own self-centered incapability to let God in, and all that results from it.

Hell is thus not a sentence of God imposed on sinner, because God desires all to be saved. Hell is God’s recognition that he has been rejected. Even though God’s grace continues to be offered without ceasing, its acceptance becomes evermore unlikely as the addiction to godlessness becomes evermore concrete.

If this theology of hell works for you as it does for me, then there are still steps to take. One is that the prospect of eternal punishment need not figure prominently in the Gospel of love. The center of the Gospel is not that God wrathfully seeks to condemn all who fail to meet narrowly defined criteria. God is love and desires with great liberality all to be saved, even to the extent that in all eternity, God never gives up seeking out his children. But it avoids what Methodist Professor David Watson admitted is the pitfall of universal salvation, that evangelism is really a pointless exercise if everyone winds up in heaven, anyway. On the contrary, the reality of hell makes a decision for Christ in this life vitally important. “Who is Christ?” becomes not merely one important question among others, it becomes the central question of human affairs. Evangelism is the crucial mission of the church.

This understanding also places a great burden upon us if we are to love God in return for the love God has given us. David Watson wrote,
When even a cursory thought is given to the countless millions in the world who are hungry, who are suffering, who languish under injustice, or are ravaged by war, the prospect of anyone celebrating personal salvation . . . borders on the obscene. There are still too many of Christ’s little ones who are hungry, too many who lack clothes, too many who are sick or in prison. There are too many empty places [at God’s banquet table]. The appropriate attitude for guests who have already arrived is to nibble on the appetizers and anticipate the feast which is to come. To sit down and begin to eat would be unpardonable . . . especially since the host is out looking for the missing guests, and could certainly use some help
Jerry Walls wrote that God has both the ability and the desire to preserve and perfect his relationship with human beings. God created in us aspirations for divine fellowship. Being good, God does not leave those aspirations unsatisfied.
The doctrine of heaven is the claim that our deepest aspirations can be satisfied in a perfected relationship with God and other persons. However, a loving God does not force this relationship upon us; indeed, he cannot do so if we are truly free. So we can, if we prefer, destroy our own happiness by rejecting the only true means to that happiness.
“And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done.”